Like many workplaces, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven hundreds of municipal staff from the office to a desk at home.
But working remotely has been so seamless that it’s raised questions about potential cost savings, including the possible sale of the Chatham-Kent Civic Centre, which needs a multi-million-dollar upgrade.
“It’s not officially for sale, but we always have to be looking at all options to save taxpayer money,” said Mayor Darrin Canniff.
If someone came forward with a “fantastic offer, we’d have to consider it,” he added.
A working remotely policy report – stemming from a notice of motion in September by Coun. Trevor Thompson – noted that nearly 300 municipal staff member have been working at home since the pandemic was declared in mid-March.
Thompson said conversations around the Civic Centre and the renovations needed at city hall have been going on for past few years.
He said a “conversation about potentially moving into the Downtown Chatham Centre has also been going on for a couple of years.”
Thompson said his motion was a matter of trying to get this issue moving in parallel with a recognition the municipality needs to plan for the future “and working from home seems like it’s here to stay.”
“I wanted it to stay top of mind for our staff and, politically, around the (council) horseshoe as well (because) we might not need a building the size of the civic centre going forward,” he said.
If 30 to 40 per cent of municipal staff work from home in the future, then that changes how much municipal office space is needed, Thompson said.
And if a lot less office space is required in the future, the municipality will react accordingly, Canniff said.
“We’re not going to sit with all the empty space,” he said. “We’re going to do something with it. We need to look at all opportunities to provide equal or better service at a lower cost.”
Canniff said more people working from home is something being looked at across North America.
“If you can get people to be as productive or more productive at home, and they’re happier working from home, and we don’t have to have all the office space and we can save costs, it’s a win-win for everybody,” the mayor said.
The working remotely report noted the estimated one-time cost for providing hardware and software for those employees currently working from home will be $50,000 for the year, which is being funded by the Safe Restart Fund.
Annual costs to allow these staff to continue working from home next year is estimated at $5,000, the report stated.
“Given that working remotely is considered an opportunity rather than a requirement at this time, all other costs for home offices are the responsibility of the remote worker,” the report concluded.
Thompson said what’s most important to him and the residents he’s spoken to is “value for dollar.”
He said residents don’t want to see a new building constructed, “but I think at the same time we all recognize you need to have a functional building.”